By Robin Pierson, Special to the Independent
Anne Johnson, the Laguna Beach Woman’s Club woman of the year, came to Laguna Beach because she thought it would be the best place to live out the little time she had left.
Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1988, Johnson was told to get her affairs in order. “I decided I wanted to die with my boots on in Laguna,” she said.
She and her husband, Marv, were living in Claremont working as teachers and had bought a multi-unit rental on Glenneyre with another couple. Facing the prospect that she might have only a few years left, the couple bought out their partners and used the funds to buy a 1930s former Olympic village cottage on Oak Street. Situated across a footbridge, leading to a lush sanctuary of quiet and calm, Johnson said, “It was our kind of house.”
After months of cancer free checkups, Johnson was deemed cured. “I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be around, I should get involved in the community.’”
Johnson’s first foray into public service in Laguna wasn’t a position she would have chosen. Still thinking that her life would be short, she and Marv travelled. In Guatemala she watched the Bravo Channel that she thought “better than PBS.” Dismayed that it wasn’t available in Laguna, Johnson set her sights on joining the Telecommunications Committee. But the committee members were well entrenched. Bob Gentry, a council member at the time, suggested she join the Recreation Committee. Despite not being too interested in the committee’s purview, she signed up.
Johnson got more out of her five-year stint on the committee than she could ever imagine.
The council liaison was the late Kathleen Blackburn, who attended every committee meeting. “She was a mentor to me…always gentle, and very bright with a fine mind,” Johnson said. “We were in each other’s lives a lot and I still miss her.”
The Rec Committee tackled issues such as lighting on Riddle Field, dogs on the beach, dug outs at Alta Laguna Park. “I couldn’t believe it. Everything in this town was controversial.”
Simultaneously, Johnson got involved in the local Democratic Club, becoming vice president. The city council then asked her to serve on the Vision Laguna 2030 Steering Committee, an appointment that Johnson has concluded lead to her subsequent appointment on the Planning Commission.
Johnson had just landed at John Wayne Airport when Blackburn called and said that she had been selected to join the Planning Commission. She left the airport and went directly to her first meeting, which she has been doing at least twice a month for the past 16 years.
“My dear friend Kathleen told me that the General Plan is the constitution of the city.” Ever since, Johnson has used the eight thick volumes – dictating everything from land use, to the downtown specific plan to parking and transportation – as her guides in making decisions. “I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s wonky enough so that at every meeting I learn something new.”
Eight years ago, in response to citizens’ nervousness about going before the Planning Commission, Johnson inaugurated “Open for Business,” where people interested in opening a business in Laguna can float their ideas. “We offer gentle guidance,” she said.
Since it’s inclusion in the General Plan eight years ago, Johnson has been involved with housing issues. “I think it’s sad that we’ve moved to be the type of town where people who do the work for the city – teachers, police, fireman – can’t afford to live here anymore. People like me could never move here now.”
For the past three years, Johnson has been the Planning Commission’s representative on the Senior Housing Task Force. “Were trying to keep the seniors in this town.”
Johnson hasn’t limited her public service to city positions.
In 1995, she volunteered to get involved with the Woman’s Club, agreeing to head programming. As vice president, she planned to move the club away from the ubiquitous fashion shows and add “a little brain food” to the club’s offerings. Two months into her stint, the president of the club died and the gavel moved to Johnson, who finished out the deceased president’s terms and was elected to two more stints as the club’s head. Johnson had her work cut out for her. “We needed to make a lot of building repairs and the budget was shrinking.”
Johnson also found time to serve many years on the board of directors of the Laguna Greenbelt, Patriot’s Day Parade and Brandy’s Friends, established to address and curtail drug overdoes amongst the community’s youth.